The Caldecott Medal in the 1930's
We're taking a look back at the history of the Caldecott Medal. This series of blogs, titled "Four & Twenty Blackbirds", receives its name from one of the engravings on the actual prize Medal given out for the best children's book illustrations.
At the Children's Museum of New Hampshire, we know how important reading is to the learning process. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said,
"If we encounter a man with rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads."
The same can be applied to families. If you encounter a knowledgeable, humorous family with a large vocabulary and an even larger imagination, you should ask them what books they read. Don't be surprised when you find numerous Caldecott Medal Winners & Caldecott Medal Honorees on their list.
The Caldecott Medal - named after 19th Century illustrator Randolph Caldecott - was designed by American artist Rene Paul Chambellan in 1937. The front, and most recognizable side of the medal, is taken from Caldecott's cover illustration of The Diverting History of John Gilpin from 1878. The picture of the titular Gilpin riding his horse is the image emblazoned upon all books that are chosen as Caldecott winners and honorees. The back of the medal is from Caldecott's illustration of the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, specifically the line, "Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie".
After nearly eighty years of illustrators being chosen by the American Library Association as either a Caldecott Medal Honor book (which, in our estimation, is a much more prestigious designation than "Nominee" or "Runner-up") or Caldecott Medal Winner, over 300 books have been lucky enough to receive the extra appreciation and recognition for their beautiful, sumptuous, stark, lush, mesmerizing and wondrous illustrations. But for every Seuss, Sendak and McCloskey, whose works have stayed in the public eye via re-printings, adaptations, etc., there's a Slobodkin, Yashima and McDermott whose works still remain as award-worthy as they were decades ago even if they've fallen out of the spotlight.
Taking inspiration from the backside of the prestigious medal, we'll be spending some time here on our blog looking at different artists who have been recognized by the fifteen member Caldecott committee. Let's look at some of the best children's book illustrations that each decade has to offer, starting in the first decade the Medal was awarded.
Who: Thomas Handforth (born in Tacoma, WA, 1897)
Book: Mei Li / Doubleday / 1938
Plot: Set in Peiping (then current name of Beijing), China, Mei Li and her brother San Yo sneak out of their home to attend the New Year's Eve fair. Mei Li strives to show San Yo that girls can do - or at least should be allowed to do - all the things that boys can do. Young Mei Li arrives home to greet the Kitchen God who may somehow be connected to the mysterious words of the fortune teller at the fair.
Misc: Mei Li was the second book to ever win the Caldecott Medal. Handforth, mostly recognized as an artist specializing in lithographs, ultimately illustrated only six picture books for children in his short lifetime. Handforth had spent a significant amount of time in China and was familiar not only with the fashions and culture of the rural Chinese family that appear so prominently in the book, but had also seen first hand the disparity in social opportunities between the genders - even in the very young. Many early 20th Century books, even those recognized by the Caldecott committee, have an unfortunate take on non-American cultures, employing language considered too coarse by 2015 standards. This makes Mei Li, a story about gender inequality with a Chinese female protagonist, even more progressive than one expects. The book was lauded when it was first published for the detailed black and white ink drawings as well as Handforth's propensity for having the characters and their surroundings "spill" out of the "frame".
Availability: Out of Print. Copies range from $30-$80 depending on hardcover, softcover, edition and condition.
If you'd like to learn more about Handforth, Mei Li and his other works, please read Kathleen T. Horning's thorough and illuminating look at not only at the choice to honor Mei Li, but the inception of the Caldecott as an award.
Who: James Daugherty (born in Asheville, NC, 1889)
Book: Andy and the Lion / E.M. Hale & Company / 1938
Plot: An updated version of the classic Androcles and the Lion - a short story that pre-dates Aesop! Taking place near a rural American farm pre-WWII, Andy comes across a lion on his way to school. The lion has a thorn in his paw and is in great distress. How does Andy help the Lion? How does this kind act affect the relationship between Andy and the King of the Jungle? First impressions, kindness, compassion and gratitude are all on display in this short story full of of ink sketches filled in with yellow and sepia tones.
Misc: Daugherty had a productive few years leading up to World War II. After having spent much of WWI designing and illustrating American propaganda posters for the war efforts, he begun writing and illustrating children's books. After receiving a Caldecott Medal Honor for his work on Andy and the Lion, he would receive the Newbery Medal for his biography on Daniel Boone (simply titled Daniel Boone) the following year. Andy and the Lion has aged remarkably well and I highly recommend it. Daniel Boone has not aged nearly as well, with its constant degradation of Native Americans in order to prop up Boone's heroic narrative being the most problematic among a host of less than compassionate issues.
Availability: In Print. Copies range from $3-$14.